The Ninjabot

Retro Review: A Certain Scientific Railgun

Posted on August 18, 2013 at 2:26 pm by Will Wells

I’ve been making an effort to go back and watch shows that I missed.  I recently watched Battlestar Galactia and Lost for the first time.  And now I’ve just finished season 1 of A Certain Scientific Railgun.

A Certain Scientific Railgun Logo

A Certain Scientific Railgun has been on my to-watch list for a while, but I only recently took the plunge.  And a plunge it is.  It turns out that it is a sequel/spin-off of another series, A Certain Magical Index, which I have not watched either.  However, A Certain Scientific Railgun does a fairly good job of introducing the audience to Academy City (the setting) and the characters.  And there are a LOT of characters to introduce.  For now, I’ll just stick with Mikoto Misaka.  Her nickname is Railgun because she can use electricity to fire coins at super-sonic speeds like a railgun.

Eat supersonic coin motherfucker!

She can also shock people like a taser if she doesn’t want to kill them with her “railgun.”

Yeah, I probably should have mentioned – this is basically X-Men the anime, except that instead of mutants they’re called Espers, and instead of hiding, the most powerful Espers are celebrities.  And instead of a single school, the Espers have their own city dedicated to the study and improvement of their powers.  Of the 2.3 million people in Academy City, 80% are students.  Don’t sweat the math – the writers sure didn’t.

Apparently they were thinking about other things, like foreshadowing.  This anime is unique in one aspect – the random filler episodes are actually massive Chekov’s guns.  Spoilers will follow, so consider yourselves warned.

Okay?

And now a "panty shot" for your viewing pleasure.

Mikoto Misaka, one of the most practically dressed female protagonists in anime.

Okay.

In the 24 episode series, about 12 are “arc plot” episodes where the characters deal with the main plot.  The other 12 episodes are “filler” – except that they also contain important foreshadowing, plot points, and setup.  For example: after the first main arc there is what appears to be some nice down time for shopping, school festivals, and study.  However, every so often, a minor earthquake will hit.  Sometimes it affects the plot, sometimes it just happens and is forgotten about a few moments later.  No one seems to find this particularly unusual, so it just sort of slides by – until the second main arc hits and the earthquakes prove to be artificial.

And that’s one of the more obvious ones.  I saw that one coming after the second or third earthquake.  Others, even after I knew to start expecting obscure plot points to come back, took me completely by surprise.

The identity of the main villain for the first season did not, however, as it is spoiled in the (second) opening credits, long before the audience is even introduced to the character in the series itself.

So, spoilers aside, what did I think of A Certain Scientific Railgun?  Well, it’s pretty good.  The writing is actually surprisingly good, considering some of the goofier moments – the foreshadowing is really very expertly done, and constantly impressed me – and the characters get a lot development.  The “filler” episodes mean that we have time to devote to pure character development while still serving the plot with that super-subtle foreshadowing.

This, however, brings us to a very strange problem I had with the show.  I mentioned before that it was actually a sequel/spin-off.  Well, it was a spin-off from an anime based on a virtual novel.  That’s fine – plenty of excellent anime is created that way – but most of the characters in A Certain Scientific Railgun began as a selection of romancable characters for a (fairly) bland male protagonist.  Touma (the protagonist of A Certain Magical Index) makes a few cameos in A Certain Scientific Railgun, but only very briefly.  He isn’t the issue – the fact that many of these characters began as one-note romantic interests does.

He's so unimportant, I couldn't find a better picture of him online without another character in the shot with him.

“Huh? What’s going on? Why am I in this review? I’m so confused!”

See, A Certain Scientific Railgun is a series with an all-female cast.  Aside from Touma, there is no male character in the entire series who appears in three or more episodes.  This is actually rather refreshing – a cast of females who aren’t constantly worried about men – so there’s no criticism there (aside from wondering why men never join Judgment or AntiSkill, the city’s police forces).  The criticism is that many of these characters were written as one-dimensional characters to be background or romance options for Touma.  When he was (mostly) removed and they were given space to grow, they did so – the show develops the characters in exceptionally interesting ways.  However, to keep them “consistent” with the original material, almost all of the characters exhibit strange behaviors that remain left over from their original one-dimensional archetype roles.

The worst example of this is Kuroko Shirai.  She is a loyal friend, a determined officer of the law (with Judgment), and rather brash and impulsive, running into situations without backup.  As a strong, but hot-headed female protagonist, she gets a ton of character development.

"I'm like Wolverine, but cuter!"

This is Kuroko Shirai. She fights with knives.

However, back in Magical Index, she was the “psycho lesbian stalker” archetype, so she will ignore all of her development above to stalk, sexually harass, and attempt to rape Mikoto Misaka.  The writers had a chance to leave behind the stereotypes and develop her as an interesting gay female character, but instead of transcending her stereotypical origins, she swings wildly between complex developed character and offensive stereotype.

Yes, that is a bandoleer of knives. Kuroko Shirai carries a bandoleer of knives in her school bag.

Kuroko Shirai is the most awful and offensive example, but there are numerous others, including Mikoto Misaka who occasionally recalls that she was written to be a Tsundere.  I understand that this flip-flopping nature was meant to keep them consistent with their activities as minor characters in Magical Index, but it makes all the excellent character development that A Certain Scientific Railgun gives them seem rather shallow (even when the development itself it not).

A Certain  Scientific Railgun: C

Breakdown: A Certain Scientific Railgun had the potential to be another Mai Hime (a personal favorite of mine), an anime that transcended its comparatively lame origins.  Instead, while it is quite good, A Certain Scientific Railgun never quite breaks away from its inferior roots.  I would have graded it higher, but the offensive portrayal of gay stereotypes pulls the entire show down one letter grade.

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